The Matrix introduced a nightmarish virtual world of hidden computer code. But Doctor Who got there 12 years earlier…
They say nobody can be told what the Matrix is, that you have to see if for yourself. But let’s give it a try anyway.
The Matrix is a virtual reality environment containing millions of minds where everything you see, hear, smell and even touch feels completely and totally real. Entering via a device that connects directly to your brain, once in the Matrix only those of the strongest will and knowledge can see through the veil of its reality to see the complex computer code beneath. And those who’ve mastered it can actually manipulate the code to change the world around them. But beware – if you die in the Matrix, then the shock will kill your real body.
The basis of a major 1999 blockbuster movie starring Keanu Reeves? No: it’s the plot of 1976’s Doctor Who serial ‘The Deadly Assassin.’
This Matrix isn’t part of some random society the Doctor stumbles across in their travels, either. It’s a fundamental part of the Gallifreyan civilisation of the Time Lords themselves. After they were first introduced in 1969’s ‘The War Games’ we actually learned little about the Doctor’s people. They were high-handed and aloof and obviously extremely sophisticated and powerful, but we weren’t told much about how they were organised and how they lived.
‘The Deadly Assassin’ changed all that. We learned that they could be fussy and small-minded, and that they didn’t even understand their own ancient history. We were introduced to the office of Lord President as a largely ceremonial figure, and to the Chancellor and High Council where true power resided. We learned that every Time Lord’s biodata is stored and archived as a permanent record of their activities, and that a shadowy group called the Celestial Intervention Agency were the ones who we’d occasionally seen using the Doctor to nudge the universe in the right direction for Gallifrey’s purposes.
And we were also introduced to the Matrix…
The Matrix scenes in ‘The Deadly Assassin’ contain some strikingly similar ideas to the 1999 movie
We’re originally told that the Matrix is part of the Amplified Panatropic Computer Net. The APC Net itself isn’t a normal computer system of wires and electrodes, but a network of electrochemical cells storing information in a manner presumably much more like an organic brain. It’s perhaps this that allows the Time Lords to transfer the life experiences of dead Time Lords into the APC Net for permanent storage.
‘The Deadly Assassin’ describes the Matrix as the part of the APC Net which uses that knowledge and experience, and a variation on the ‘wisdom of crowds’ to make predictions about future events and guide the decision-making of the current leaders of Gallifrey. The Matrix isn’t designed to be connected to a living brain, but when the Doctor does just that, he finds himself in a virtual world which draws on the experiences of Time Lords past, filled with wastelands, jungles, killer clowns, steam trains and WWI bi-planes.
One of the most dramatic moments features the Doctor being injured within the Matrix, but declaring that he denies the nightmare world’s reality. Seeing through his eyes, we actually glimpse through the reality of the Matrix to see a web of interconnecting Gallifreyan computer code powering this world. This allows the Doctor to control its effect on him and he heals his wound with a thought.
All of this will seem very familiar to anyone who’s seen the Matrix series of films. In those, the Matrix is also the name of a vast virtual reality containing millions of minds. It’s not designed for people to come and go from, but our heroes do just that, connecting it to their living brains so that they can enter the world within. They’re in pursuit of ‘the One’ who they think can look beyond the Matrix to the flowing lines of code beneath, and thus affect the world around them. And at the climax, Keanu Reeves’ character Neo is confirmed to be the One, using this power to heal his bullet wounds with a thought.
There’s even an echo of the originally-stated purpose of the Matrix in Doctor Who, as the Oracle is able to see the patterns in the Matrix and use them to predict the future.
What inspired The Matrix?
There are differences of course. In the The Matrix film, the people resident within the virtual reality are still alive, and completely unaware that it’s not the real world. Rather than being used as a source of knowledge and to process predictive algorithms, they’re used as an energy source. And rather than being put there by their own people to preserve their legacy, they’re prisoners, born to live and die in the Matrix as unwitting victims of their Machine overlords.
But the basic notion of the two Matrices are very similar, even within the wider subgenre of VR in science fiction. And then there’s that name – what are the chances of both Doctor Who and the film series hitting upon the exact same name for their virtual realities? Unfortunately, it’s likely we’ll never know one way of the other. The creators of the Matrix films, the Wachowski Sisters, famously give very few interviews, once even going as long as 14 years between speaking to the media.
They’ve also been particularly reticent to discuss the deeper meanings of their work. It was only in 2020, 21 years after it came out, that Lily Wachowski confirmed the original Matrix film was a ‘trans allegory,’ for instance.
So whether they were familiar with Doctor Who and ‘The Deadly Assassin’ and partly inspired by it in their creation of the Matrix in their films, is a question that might never get answered.
What we can say is that both versions have had a lasting impact. The Doctor Who version was seen as recently as ‘The Timeless Children,’ when the Master traps the Doctor within it to show her long-hidden Time Lord secrets. And this year saw the release of The Matrix Resurrections, a fourth entry in the movie series.
What do you think? Did the Matrix of the Time Lords inspire the The Matrix movie, one of the most influential pieces of science fiction in history? Or is it all just a coincidence? And does it matter anyway, so long as we have two fun and cool virtual reality adventures to enjoy? Let us know what you think!
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